Commemorating the 200th anniversary of Mount Tambora’s eruption, the ‘Kuldesak Tambora’ exhibit features performances and works of art inspired by volcanic explosions.   (The Peak Photos/Tunggul Wirajuda)

An Artistic Homage to the Awesome Powers of Nature

APRIL 26, 2015

Commemorating the 200th anniversary of  Mount Tambora’s eruption, the ‘Kuldesak Tambora’ exhibit features performances and works of art inspired by volcanic explosions.   (The Peak Photos/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Dancers from the Wayang Kulit Gunung Wong Urip troupe made their way onto the stage amid the din of the gamelan orchestra and modern drums.

Booming explosions from the instruments recreated the sensations of a volcanic eruption and amplified the sense of panic emanating from the white-and ashen gray-clad performers. Their bewilderment was palpable as they scrambled to get away from the implied threats of lava and volcanic rock. 

Dressed and moving in a combination of Javanese and Balinese styles, the dancers wailed and vainly implored for their lives to be spared, before succumbing to poisonous gas and collapsing on stage.

The scene is part of the troupe’s fictional take on the destruction of the West Nusa Tenggara kingdoms of Tambora, and its neighbors Sanggar and Pekat, during the eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815. 

The performance is part of “Kuldesak Tambora” (“Tambora’s Culdesac”) an exhibition at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Central Jakarta, revisiting the disaster on its 200th anniversary. An epochal moment in Indonesian history, the volcanic eruption killed an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 people, leaving their remains and that of their kingdoms beneath layers of lava and volcanic ash, aptly earning them the nickname “Indonesia’s Pompeii.”

Wayang Kulit Gunung Wong Urip’s performance then took a stoic turn. 

“Its unfortunate that the [Indonesian] government and the public continue to be ignorant about the lessons of Tambora’s eruption. Our studies and research in volcanology are behind that of Western countries, making them more scientifically aware of the natural phenomenon,” lamented the wayang in his soliloquy. “Researchers from various Western universities flock to Indonesia to research the country’s volcanoes. On the other hand, most Indonesian universities don’t even have a volcanology department.”

(JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Bentara Budaya director Hariadi Saptono echoed the performer’s sentiments, noting that Indonesia has the world’s largest number of volcanoes with over 400 mountains, 127 of which are still active. He also pointed out that Western records of eruptions and their impact have been more comprehensive than those of their Indonesian counterparts. 

“The West was far more advanced than Indonesia [at the time of Mount Tambora’s eruption], even as countries like Great Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal occupied various parts of country,” Hariadi said. “The eruption was heard by British army personnel as far away as Bengkulu, Makassar [South Sulawesi], and Padang [West Sumatra]. This also showed the inroads these foreigners had made in Indonesia since they looted the keraton of Yogyakarta under Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1811. 

“Western records also note that [1816] was a year ‘without summer,’ as volcanic ash from Tambora shot up into the stratosphere and blocked out the sun across Europe and the United States.”

While the disaster brought about widespread famine, failed harvests and other agricultural and economic hardships, the Tambora’s eruption was most felt in popular culture of the time.

“British writer Mary Shelley was inspired to write her classic book ‘Frankenstein,’ which came about from a contest to alleviate boredom due to the glum weather. Meanwhile, German inventor Karl Drais invented the bicycle as an alternative form of transportation after crop failures caused the widespread starvation of horses,” Hariadi said.

“Weather abnormalities caused by ash clouds inspired painters like J.M.W. Turner to create landscape paintings featuring never-before seen shades and hues of striking orange.

 “On the other hand, Indonesian sources are nearly silent about the disaster, except for a short story in writer Ganes T.H.’s adventure series ‘Si Buta Dari Goa Hantu’ [‘The Blind Man From the Haunted Cave’] entitled ‘The Werewolf From Mount Tambora.’

“Equally mystifying, particularly to Western researchers, is the habit of a volcano stricken area’s inhabitants to come back to the land instead of evacuating it, as is the custom overseas. While this might seem like madness to the Western world, it reflects the Indonesian people’s resilience and in the face of disaster.”

Nonetheless, the toll of volcanic eruptions that occurred after Tambora, like the 1883 eruption of Mount Krakatau to the more recent eruptions of Mount Merapi in 2006 and 2010, play a prominent part in the exhibition. In one corner, a macabre memento of a volcano’s power is seen in the remains of a water buffalo that was stripped to its skeleton by the blast.

But the most ominous souvenir of all is perhaps a small portrait of the late Mbah Maridjan, a shaman who paid for his attempts to appease Mount Merapi with his life. 

“Kuldesak Tambora” serves as a frightening reminder of both the calamitous impact of volcanoes and the awesome, destructive powers that brew in our own backyard.